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Photographing Birds at Bosque del Apache, NM

Bosque del Apache is a bird photographer's paradise!

I heard it before I even knew what it was. There was a sound that reminded me of a jet airplane taking off. It was so real that I started looking around for an airport. Then I saw it. The sky, bathed with the pink glow of the sunrise, literally went dark with tens of thousands of snow geese.

In an instant, I knew why I had come to Bosque del Apache. It was for the birds. Tens of thousands of them. Particularly sandhill cranes and Canadian snow geese. They leapt into the sky, wave upon wave. Driven by instinct and almost as if on cue, they made their departure northward for the farm fields that provide them with their sustenance.

And they did it all at once. It was all over in less than 30 seconds.

It was a very moving experience. It's hard to use mere words to describe what I saw. The sights and sounds of the morning "fly-out" on Bosque's famed "Flight Deck" were worth the trip, even if I hadn't made a single picture.

The location

Bosque del Apache (Woods of the Apache) is a 57,191-acre national wildlife refuge 18 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. It was created by diverting water from the Rio Grande to create extensive wetlands. It is bordered by the Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains.

More than 300 species of birds migrate to the Bosque each year. During my recent visit, I saw great blue herons, coots, mallards, snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, roadrunners, Ross' Canadian and snow geese, bald eagles, Coopers and red-tailed hawks and wild turkeys....and that was in just one day. Surely no place in America can boast such a concentration of birds and wildlife.

Getting to Bosque del Apache

Fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico's International Airport and rent a car. The drive down I-25 South takes you to Socorro, the nearest city with lodging, restaurants and shopping. The drive is fast and easy, and I made it this trip in just over an hour.

From Socorro, you have another 20 minutes drive to the refuge. Take I-25 south eight miles until you see the San Antonio exit (Exit 139). Then follow the signs another eight miles down Old Highway One.

Accommodations and meals

There are 31 hotels in Socorro, including four or five chain hotels. The Holiday Inn Express on the north end of California Street is the nicest (and most expensive) hotel in Socorro. At roughly $65 a night, it is usually a safe choice but I have had some bad experiences there. If you are on a budget, I like the Motel 6 at exit 147.

Also try the EconoLodge (713 California Street NW) because it is only $35 a night. I stayed there on a recent trip and had a king size bed, microwave, refrigerator and got a free continental breakfast. It wasn't fancy but it was clean, and I think it was a bargain.

Note: I originally made my reservations through Trip.com. They booked me a room at the EconoLodge for $54 a night. It turns out that anyone can walk in off the street and get that room for $35. These prices may have risen by the time you read this.

The lesson to learn here is that Internet travel agents aren't always the best way to get the best deal. Try calling the hotels directly to get the best prices. The EconoLodge can be reached at 505-835-1500 and Motel 6 is at 505 835-4300.

You'll find the usual fast food restaurants to choose from, such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. There are two local restaurants of note. Socorro Springs Brewing CO in the historic downtown plaza and El Sombrero restaurant on the north edge of town.

You might want to stop in at the town's grocery store and stock up on snacks. If you're like me, you will find it hard to leave the Refuge once you get there and meals take a back seat to the photo opportunities that wait around every turn of the Refuge's auto loop.

Recommended equipment

While you can get very close to some of the birds at Bosque, this is a location that screams for a long lens. The longer the better. You will also want at least two bodies and probably a wide angle zoom to catch the grand scene of the birds blanketing the sky as they depart for the morning "fly-outs."

In 2004, I shot Bosque using exclusively Tamron lenses. Their 200-500 was my longest lens and on a Canon 20D, it was the same as shooting a 320-800. I also used Tamron's super sharp 28-70 for scene setting shots.

If you shoot digitally, you can cheat a little here thanks to the multiplication factor found on most DSLRs. The Nikons typically have a multiplication factor of 1.5 and Canons 1.6.

You will also want a big sturdy tripod to support all that lens and don't forget the Wimberly Tripod head or Kirk's equivalent. A gimbal mount is crucial for wielding the big lenses to getpanning/tracking shots of individual birds. Another alternative is to use a fluid tripod head. These are usually the stock and trade of video shooters but work well at Bosque.

If you shoot film, don't even think of shooting the "fly-out" or the "fly-in" with anything less than 400 ISO speed film. It will simply be too dark to get any reasonable image quality at any speed below 400. In fact, several of the people shooting film on the Flight Deck were using ISO 800 speed print film to get faster shutter speeds.

I shot digital on my last three Bosque trips and shot-by-shot, was able to vary my ISO. I made many exposures at ISO 800 to get the best results in low light.

Also be sure to bring a small flashlight since you will be arriving for the morning "fly-out" while it is still dark.

Timing your trip

The migrating geese and cranes start to arrive in earnest at the Refuge in November. Any visit between mid-November and early January should yield a Refuge filled with tens of thousands of birds. The other advantage to going in winter is that the cold temperatures make for some tremendous sunrises and sunsets.

If you can't make it during peak times, you should still see a great deal of wildlife any time from October through February.

Whatever you do, don't come during the annual Crane Festival. While a fun event, the festival will flood the area with tourists and make serious photography difficult. Check the website at Friends Of The Bosque for more information.

Photographing the birds

Due to space limitations, I will not cover every opportunity. But you could spend a lifetime at Bosque and still miss much of what it has to offer. Since my recent trip was only three days, I concentrated on the high visibility areas with lots of birds.

I suggest the Flight Deck as a safe place to bet on both sunrise and sunset. (To get to the Flight Deck, go into the Refuge and turn left immediately after the pay booth. There is a sign that points you to the Flight Deck.) The deck itself is a boardwalk-like construction that juts out over the pond.

It is usually very crowded with photographers so get there early. Also be aware that if these photographers move while you are shooting, you will feel their footstep's vibrations. If you want to shoot from the same general area and avoid the crowds at the Flight Deck, stop 100 yards short of the Flight Deck and shoot the pond from the side of the road. There is ample space to park and plenty of great access to the birds.

The Farm Loop is also another great place to concentrate if you have limited time. But remember it can change from year to year. Starting three years ago, the birds almost always moved straight from the roosting ponds to the north farm fields to begin their daily work - eating. The refuge staff prepares corn fields for the birds daily, and the birds aren't stupid. Eating seems to be the only thing the birds do in the daytime.

The Farm Deck gives you a "birds-eye" view of the fields but presents the same problems as the Flight Deck. Move just off to one side to get the same shot and avoid having someone accidentally kick your tripod leg or cause disturbing vibrations.

You can drive the entire loop by turning right after the fee booth. This will take you the long way around the refuge and is a good way to familiarize yourself with the area. Depending on when you go, most of the action will take place between the ponds in front of the Flight Deck and the Farm Loop.

Keep an eye out for falcons and eagles in the trees. They are skittish so take your time when approaching them. If you want to photograph ducks, wind your way to the Coyote Deck. Have your camera ready to shoot. As you walk up the deck you may cause the ducks to take off from the marsh. You will have to work quickly to capture them.

Another great duck place is the blind that has been constructed off the Farm Loop. The Phil Norton Observation Blind allows you to approach this area hidden from the birds. There are numerous holes cut in the blind at various heights that you can poke your lens through. Mornings and late afternoons will put this area in the best light during the winter.

Lastly, try the two ponds that you pass on Old Highway One, five miles north of the Refuge. These two ponds are used by cranes and geese as overnight ponds. This area is a part of the refuge but not on the loop. It is usually less crowded than the Flight Deck and faces west, so it is perfect at sunset.

Getting around Bosque del Apache

Entrance to the Refuge is allowed from one hour prior to sunrise and until one hour after sunset. There is a $3 fee to enter. If you plan to be there for four or more days, get the annual pass for $12.

The Bosque Visitor Center is open from 7:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday and at 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. There are restrooms here as well as a chance to buy books and snacks.

There are approximately 15 miles of well-maintained dirt roads that traverse the Reserve. You can meander up and down these roads and pull over anywhere you want to shoot. You can shoot from inside your car or get out and walk about. This is the single most photographer-friendly park, reserve or refuge that I have ever seen.

Be sure to dress for cold weather. Southern New Mexico gets cold during the winter. During November, temperatures in the upper teens to low 20s will greet you each morning. Dress in layers so that you can adjust as the day gets warmer. Be sure to bring a good hat and gloves. Warm socks and boots will also help make the trip more enjoyable.

There is no place to buy professional film in Socorro so be sure to bring plenty or visit Camera And Darkroom (or call 505-255-1133), Albuquerque's pro camera store. They sell pro equipment and film. They also advertise same-day processing. Digital shooters will want to have plenty of memory cards on hand.


Making photographs of wildlife, particularly in the wild, is very satisfying. It is also difficult. You will be working in cold weather, in the dark, carrying heavy lenses and taking pictures of living, moving creatures. Pointing a 500 mm lens at a crane flying 35 miles per hour through the sunset is hard work. Practice with your equipment before you visit Bosque and prepare for the experience of a lifetime.

Bosque is more than just another beautiful outdoor location. The surroundings are filled with the sheer energy of the living, breathing birds. While we sometimes make pretty pictures, I get the feeling that the images made at Bosque have a greater purpose. They serve to remind us that we share the planet with many beautiful creatures. If you can, go there and see it for yourself.

One more thing: If you're not careful, you may have so much fun at Bosque just watching and listening to the birds that you might just forget to trip the shutter.

About the Author:

Scott Bourne is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press. His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.

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